The month of May is drawing to a close. It’s the month that’s been designated as Older Americans Month, intended to be a time that we honor the years and wisdom of those who have reached advanced age. We all know that the sheer number of older adults is increasing—the demographics are undeniable but are these older adults getting the kind of attention and respect that their age alone merits?
Sadly, ageism is alive and well and living in this country. Older adults often find themselves ignored, minimized and taken for granted. In some physician offices, there are fully competent individuals over 80 years of age who won’t be seen without someone accompanying them. When asked the reason, staff responded that they did not have time to help someone use the restroom facilities if they needed to, assuming incorrectly that age determines the ability to function independently.
Too often we find ourselves in situations where an older adult’s words are corrected or their sentences completed before they have a chance to finish their thought. It is as if they don’t matter or can’t participate, but the truth is they do matter and they can take part. Do some older adults have limitations due to disease and/or disability? Of course they do but age, alone, is not the determinant and no matter what age, every individual is entitled to be heard.
How do we begin to chip away at these preconceived and faulty notions? Like anything else, we begin at the beginning. We find opportunities for children to interact with older adults, to both not be afraid of “different” and to understand value. We slow our own pace to listen and hear, to honor and engage. We think about the language that we use about aging and the aged—how different are the words mature and old, how different it is when we see their slower pace as measured and the conversation as valuable and not just something we have to endure.
The old adage “May you live in interesting times” is so true today, especially as it applies to the phenomenon of aging. In the past, it was rare to find someone truly elderly. Today we have many people living into the 90’s and a good number beyond. Are these older adults a burden or a gift? It is an extraordinary gift for those who choose to see it and accept—hope that you are one of them.